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Shona Art
The SHONA People
Living in Harmony with the Earth

For more than 1000 years, the Shona and their ancestors have lived and died on the land of Southeastern Africa in what is now known as Zimbabwe. A generally peaceful people who farmed and raised cattle, the Shona have nevertheless struggled for survival and prevailed against armed invaders, natural predators, disease, drought, famine and political oppression. 

To combat the forces that have threatened to tear them apart, the Shona developed intricate and sophisticated social customs and beliefs, all of which still support one basic tenet: live together and the culture will thrive. 

The Shona see life as deriving from water, or the “Great Pool.” They also trace all life forms into the terrestrial regions and divide themselves into clans which are represented by a Mutupo, or totem animal, of which there are 60 in all. Each totem animal is embraced as an intimate kin who is integral to one’s communal identity.
Terrestrial peoples identify with such animals as the antelope, elephant, buffalo, zebra, lion and monkey, while aquatics associate with animals like the hippo, crocodile, the fish eagle and the water python. When the Shona clans gather, they dance out their Mutupo identity to greet one another and celebrate their joining together.

The Shona people believe that whatever happens to the human community will affect their totem and vice versa. Stories are passed on to the young to teach them about behavior, ethical decision-making, and the ways of the world; these stories feature not only their own clan’s totem, but the whole of the natural world. In fact, in most of their stories, humans end up learning from the animals that are depicted as full of wisdom and knowledge. If the children wander off and get lost in the forest, the Shona ask the forest to look after the children and bring them back home safely.
Beginning at an early age, children are taught the abiding importance of the Mutupo and the principle by which they must honor them. This principle teaches the Shona children a spiritual orientation that encourages them to view the world in a holistic way, without divisions between humans and the earth.

The Shona people express their connection to nature through art. Their culture seeks to balance and honor union within the natural world: humans and animals, water and land, men and women, the old and the young, the ancestral and the living, earth and sky.

Living in a challenging environment of frequent drought, the Shona people are called to a close spiritual relationship with the world around them, as reflected in their traditional stone sculptures.

Steeped in the legends and traditions of this ancient African culture, Shona stone sculpture is a profound expression of human connections that transcend geography and time. Primarily self-taught, Shona carvers do not plan or pre-draw their sculptures. Instead, the stone itself and the ancestral spirits come to the artists in their dreams and reveal the spirit that dwells within the multicolored serpentine. Using simple handmade tools, they release the trapped spirit. Once released, the spirits soar with dynamic and mythical themes.

Shona sculptures are considered expressions of respect for the ancestral spirits. However, since the sculptures do not serve a utilitarian purpose in the community, they do not hold a position of awe or importance. The sculptures simply constitute decorative art in many traditional homes by symbolizing communication with the ancestral sprits. 

The material used for the Shona stone sculptures comes from The Great Dyke, a 310-mile ridge of 2.5 million-year-old hills laced with chrome, platinum, gold, copper, emeralds and other precious minerals. This area forms the backbone of Zimbabwe and also yields plentiful carving stone. From scintillating white granites to brilliant serpentines—reds, greens, maroons, grays, yellows, and vibrant oranges—the stone is a visual catalog of incredible mineral wealth. More than 255 specific colors and combinations of serpentine have been identified in Zimbabwe. It is the complex combination of these minerals that create the colorful palette so unique to Zimbabwean carving stone. 

Until recently, little was known about the Shona stone sculptures. Geo-politically isolated for many years, Zimbabwe was a little-traveled British colony. Then, on November 11, 1965, the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) was declared and trade sanctions were imposed against Rhodesia. As a result, the country’s economy became further isolated from the Commonwealth and the Western world. In 1972, civil war was declared on the Smith regime. Zimbabwe later gained peaceful independence under the majority rule in 1980. Zimbabwe is just now being discovered by tourists, and anthropological studies have begun again on the stone ruins throughout the country so that they can be shared with the world. 

Pablo Picasso was apparently an early fan of Shona sculpture. Frank McEwen, the first director of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, was a friend of Picasso and sent the artist photographs of Shona sculpture in the 1950s. Art critics have long noticed Picasso-esque lines in the work of several acclaimed Shona sculptors, but only recently has evidence surfaced that Picasso may have been influenced by the Shona. 

The Shona sculptures are now being praised around the world and can be found in permanent collections of museums around the world. The income that carvers receive does not interfere with the Shona’s traditional way of life. Strong tribal customs and cultural values do not include the hoarding of monies. To the Shona, greed is considered an illness and an aberration which is to be treated by the n’ganga or tribal healer. In fact, the artists act as a conduit through which the money is spent on needs of the entire extended family, e.g., housing, school fees, farming tools, and medical needs.

Modern civilizations honor the Shona for their art, culture, and their close spiritual relationship to the world around them. We can learn from the Shona’s traditional belief that all life is sacred, interconnected and interdependent. Humans (ancestral and living), animals, plants, earth and sky are all part of one extended family in Shona cosmology. This understanding forms the basis for their daily moral decision-making.

Seeing themselves as part of a larger universe, the Shona’s understanding of the world privileges neither the human community over the animal community, nor their own well-being over the well-being of the natural environment—all are seen as one.

Discover the art of the Shona people at the “Spirits In Stone - Art & Animals of Africa” exhibit at the San Diego Natural History Museum running through October 12, 2008. Learn more at The San Diego History Museum provided the information in this article originally written in Spirits in Stone: The New Face of African Art, by Tony and Laura Ponter.